Originally Published 1/11/09
An important concept in the thought of C. S. Lewis, a romantic as well as a Romanticist, in several senses of those words, is Sehnsucht, a term he borrowed from German Romanticism. The term refers to an intense longing–he calls it “joy” in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (that “joy” was so important to his thought made it a nice touch when the love of his life turned out to be named J0y).
For Lewis, the things that bring us the most joy in our lives, the things that we love the most, and especially the experiences of Sehnsucht, are the call of God to our souls–or, more specifically, our souls’ awareness of what they long for in Heaven. Lewis spent the first part of his young adult life pursuing the source of sehnsucht, found it in God, and then found–as he says at the end of the aforementioned memoir–that it didn’t matter as much. In The Problem of Pain–he suggests that each of us has a special spot in Heaven, designed for us alone, and, in that place, each of us will find the fulfillment of all those great loves we have in life (an idea he draws, in part, from Plato).
This spoke to me because of my own experiences of Sehnsucht. Two of the most crucial to my childhood and my lifelong development were a) the several experiences of it I had (not yet knowing the name) while reading The Chronicles of Narnia (which is why I’ve built my entire education and career around C. S. Lewis) and b) the experience of it (again, too young to know the name) from first hearing “Memory” when I was six (which led me to Barry Manilow, Andrew Lloyd Webber and T. S. Eliot). It is for Lewis and Eliot that I have my MA in English.
I had a love of fantasy literature by the time I found Narnia in fifth grade. Some significant signposts on my path to Narnia included Masters of the Universe
(sehnsucht moments: hearing “Castle Greyskull
” in the first TV ad; seeing the Filmation cartoon the first time); Transformers
(anything having to do with the Matrix
); Fraggle Rock
(pretty much the whole show, but especially episodes invovling Cantus the Minstrel and the Series Finale); the Serendipity
books. . . .
I could list other things I associate with sehnsucht,
but the point here is what led me to Narnia. A very early experience–one which happened around the same time as I first heard “Memory”–was similarly musical. In 1982, Rankin & Bass
(of Christmas special fame) produced an animated film called The Last Unicorn,
based upon a Peter S. Beagle
novel. Behind-the-scenes backstory: Rankin & Bass had done The Hobbit
and The Return of the King
to some success, but the rights to The Fellowship of the Ring
and The Two Towers
went to a different company, which collapsed them into the animated Lord of the Rings
Interestingly enough, Peter S. Beagle wrote the screenplay to the animated Lord of the Rings, because, to follow up on their success with 2 Tolkein movies, Rankin & Bass turned to Beagle.
Watching The Last Unicorn as a kid was another big Sehnsucht experience for me, and it’s always been one of my favorite movies. I watched it several times as a kid, but didn’t revisit it until Mary and I were first married, and then again this week, when I purchased the DVD at Kroger for $5.99.
Now, the Unicorn
is traditionally a symbol for Christ, and for chaste love, because the medieval folklore was that unicorns were so fierce and wild they could only be tamed by virgins. (Interestingly, it’s pretty clear from the descriptions of ancient and medieval biologists and explorers that “unicorns” were actually rhinoceri-including that Greek for “unicorn” is “monocerous” and that German for “rhinocerous” is “einhorn”). But ancient art often depicted deer and bulls in profile: showing only one horn visible. So Medievals looking at those ancient works of art, combined with having read the biolgoical accounts of rhinoceri, developed the myth of the “unicorn” as we know it.
Anyway, the movie always “spoke to me” in a longing kind of way, but I never understood its themes till this time around: even when I was an adult they didn’t catch me. I’ll have to admit that DVD commentary helped a bit. But it has to do with being true to oneself, with only getting what you really want when you’re willing to let it go (versus the dire consequences of trying to grab at your desires and keep them). It also has to do with truth and deception: again, being true to oneself, being able to see the truth, and with the differences between credulity, doubt and faith.
For example, in the story, most people cannot see unicorns for what they are: to most people, a unicorn appears as a white mare. Only a person with true faith (not necessarily faith in God, but faith in the supernatural/preternatural) can see a unicorn. THere’s a witch, “Mommy Fortuna” (Angela Lansbury) who has a sideshow carnival. She captures ordinary animals and casts spells on them so gullible people will think they’re dragons, manticores, satyrs and other fanciful beasts. But she manages to capture two real “immortals” (the movie’s term for mythic beasts): a harpy and the title unicorn. Ironically, the ordinary folk can’t see the *true* unicorn, so she casts a spell on it to give it a horn they *can* see (we can tell that a baby and a maiden in the audience are able to see *both* horns).
It’s really quite profound in its meaning. Not overtly Christian, unless you read back the fact that the unicorn is traditionally used as an allegory for Christ. Certainly, the idea that the unicorn symbolizes chaste love plays a *very* important point in the plot.
There are a couple questionable points in the film. The DVD I have says it’s rated “G”, but I remember the film being rated “PG.” There are a few points where the Lord’s name is taken in vain (though, if the Lord were not otherwise absent, these can easily be dismissed as sincere references to God). In *some* versions, there is a scene were *d*mn” is used in a very dramatic way (but the drama is not lost in the edited version on our new DVD). And there’s a very gross scene involving a tree that I FF’ed when watching it with the family.
WIth those few exceptions, it is a beautiful and moving film with some great themes that a Christian parent could share with the family.
It is also amazing for its beautiful art and music. Much of the movie is not plot or dialogue at all, but beautiful vignettes set to luscious intstruments or moving ballads (the group “America” sings the soundtrack). The key thing for me was the haunting theme song, which ties it to the “Memory” side of my personal cultural development. Both “The Last Unicorn” (which was a pretty successful hit for America) and “Memory” deal with similar themes of death and life, and the question of immortality–themes that most six-year-olds don’t think about but I did for obvious reasons. Both songs were experiences of sehnsucht for me, but they’re also songs *about* sehnsucht.
“Memory” is the song of a dying person (OK, in its original context, cat) reflecting nostalgically on her past. In this case, the sehnsucht is in the nostalgia; it’s also in the way T. S. Eliot romanticizes the modern street. It ends, of course, with the hope of a new beginning and the cry for an outreach of love. It speaks to me of my own innate pain and loneliness, my own desire for true happiness in eternal life.
By contrast, “The Last Unicorn” is a song about an immortal being: the sehnsucht is in the hope that, somewhere, there is a “last unicorn” that will outlive “the last eagle” and “the last lion”, a beacon of hope for all of us. The refrain, “I’m Alive!” has always spoken to me both of my own day-to-day survival and of the elation that I hope to one day have in Heaven.
They’re really complimentary pieces.
I have an MP3 collection called “Songs that Make Me Cry.” I burned the CD to commemorate Little Lew, for whom this website is named. My “Little Lew Song” is Barry Manilow’s “This One’s for You”: “This one’s so real for me, that I’m the one who cries. . . . “
Well, “The Last Unicorn” is a song that *always* makes me cry, and I can never sing along without choking up:
When the last eagle flies,
Over the last crumbling mountain;
When the last lion roars
At the last dusty fountain;
In the shadow of the forest
–though she may be old and worn-
They will stare, unbelieving,
At the Last Unicorn!
When the first breath of winter
Through the flowers is icing
And you look to the North
And a pale moon is rising
And it seems like all is dying,
And would leave the world to mourn, [begin chill down spine]
In the distance, hear her laughter:
It’s the last Unicorn!
“I’m alive! I’m alive!”
When the last moon is cast
Over the last star of morning
And the future is past
Without even a last, desperate warning,
[at this point I’m usually in tears]
Then look into the sky, where through
The clouds a path is torn.
Look and see her–how she sparkles–
It’s the Last Unicorn!
“I’m alive! I’m alive!”